Dorrit cycled along the unpromising dirt track two miles to the
west of the town and apparently in the middle of nowhere. After
another twenty minutes of diligent peddling he turned down an
even narrower path and eventually came to a little cottage. It
had belonged to his Great Aunt Phyllis and she had left it to
him in her will. As a consequence, Pete had also inherited three
goats, twelve chickens and a beehive, as well as a sprawling allotment
on which he now grew a fabulous array of fruits and vegetables.
He swung off his still-moving bicycle in one elegant maneouvre,
pulled open one of the garages wooden doors, leant his bike
against the interior wall and pulled a small canvas bag from one
of the panniers. It contained a few essentials from his workplace,
Shopeezy, which he couldnt produce himself, minor luxuries
such as tea, soap, spaghetti, olive oil and a bottle of his favourite
malt whiskey. He ran his right hand over his sweaty headcropped
to a Number 6 by hand-held clippersand carried the sturdy
green bag indoors.
wind-up clock in the entrance hall chimed seven times as he opened
the front door. It had been an average day, in an average job,
working on rotating shifts as one of the hypermarkets three
managers. Hed done his eight hours and it was Bruce Fipples
shift through to 2am, when Jane Gray took over. Pete almost looked
forward to going to work, ever since Jane had started at Shopeezy
in Straddlefitch. Prior to that hed never had much enthusiasm
for the job and hed always felt slightly guilty and ill
at ease about working in the sort of place that his grandmother
wouldve hated. Mind you, things had improved since her day;
at least all of the non-biodegradable packaging was recycled.
These days, however, hed get there half an hour before his
8am start time, just to hang around and spend some time in her
company. Jane was in her late twenties, with lustrous curls of
red hair, blue eyes, a pretty face and a cheerful demeanour. Hed
liked her from the moment theyd met. Pete was a couple of
years younger and usually rather shy around the fairer sex, but
she made him feel comfortable, relaxed and confident. He just
hadnt quite plucked up the courage to ask her back to his
home, fearing that she might think him a bit weird when she found
out how he avoided the trappings of modern life. Still, as far
as he was concerned, modern life was rubbish
sudden tremor rattled the pots and pans in the kitchen. It passed
within seconds, leaving Pete shocked and uneasy.
* * *
and her husband Frank Dorrit had both come from environmentally
aware families, so during the 2018 Year of the Environmentthe
same year that theyd bought their country idyllthey
quickly went to work equipping it with the most up to date green
energy technology. The roof tiles were replaced with solar photovoltaic
shingles, overlaid with water-heating vacuum tube panels and integrated
with wind power generators. They even installed a micro hydropower
unit in the stream that ran through the garden. Most of the equipment
was bespoke and made from renewable materials and long-lasting
corrosion-resistant metals, with little in the way of plasticsexcept
for a thin layer covering some of the cables. An immense compost
heap had pipes running through its midst to warm more water for
their central heating, and they employed sound biomass principles
to generate fuel for a zero-emissions burner. Frank and Phyllis
had scoured the reclamation yards for a cast iron bath and radiators,
a laundry mangle, traditional cylinder-action push-lawnmower,
gardening equipment, everything and anything that had lasted the
test of time and used the minimum of resources. Their water came
from rainwater harvesting and storage in huge underground tanks,
which could supply all of their washing needs as well as being
filtered to provide high-quality drinking water.
Frank passed away Phyllis had kept everything in good working
order, but as she too grew older, a young Pete was called upon
to help out. At first her apparent eccentricity had daunted him,
but he soon came to spend a great deal of his school holidays
with her, carrying out some of the equipment maintenance that
Phyllis found more difficult, and coming to love her alternative
way of life. With no children of her own, Pete became the sole
benefactor when she passed away. Hed learnt a great deal
from her and luckily shed kept copious notes, as well as
all of the original manuals and specs on the equipment. At first
it had been totally at odds with the life hed been used
to living with his parents in Straddlefitch, but it was that difference
which had fuelled his particular teenage rebellion and he revelled
* * *
hundred feet below the steady curve of Poppy Hill, to the North
of Straddlefitch, the bubble of gas continued its insidious expansion,
produced by the methanogenic bacteria that were amongst the old
rubbish tips tenants. The surface of the ground had been
pushed up twenty feet in the previous century. The closure and
landscaping of the planets last tipsor Household Waste
Amenity Points, as they had become knownhad marked an end
to the voracious consumption of resources that came with an out-dated
society, blinkered by the consequences of their actions. Ironically
it had become a financial necessity, as the costs of processing
the raw materials started to outweigh the fiscal benefits of recycling;
they were also simply running out of places to dump it all. Humans
had swept their detritus under a verdant carpet for far too long.
had filtered down into the warm decomposing mass and a strange,
new isolated anaerobic environment had developed. In the incredible
temperature at its core extremophiles appeared. An evolutionary
jump threw up new characteristics in the industrious microbes
that had been dutifully munching on the organic waste provided
by their human caterers. Some were able to biodegrade metals,
paints and oils, others became capable of bioremediation and decontamination,
whilst a few employed even newer tricks, such as biocatalysis.
The by-products of this activity paved the way for new breeds
of opportunistic bacteria on the sticky biofilms that began to
appear. Their isolated community would have continued like this
for centuries to come, were it not for an incredibly rare event
in that region. A mild earthquake opened up a slender crack beneath
the fizzing, rotting, bubbling mass of rubbish. That crack extended
a further sixty feet down into the rock, until it was halted by
the ancient channel of an underground spring. Some of the gloop,
from the bizarre fermentations of the rubbish tip, slowly dribbled
down the crack, into the stream and away towards Straddlefitch.
It was that quake which had shaken Petes cottage.
* * *
window cleaners from maintenance had been round early that morning
and a glance at the Cred-display screen on the kitchen wall showed
that theyd debited her account accordingly. It was a wonderful
morning, so Jane decided to forgo the delights of the MultiMed
Units breakfast banality and sit in the garden for a while.
Shed been contemplating why it was that Pete Dorrit hadnt
asked her out yet when he obviously liked her and, truth be told,
she really liked him too. He was well kempt, fit, good-looking
and had a kindhearted nature.
flicked a switch and the patio doors swung open. The left door
fell off its hinges with a thud, balanced for an instant, and
fell forwards onto the concrete slabs, smashing its glass panel.
Jane stood there for a few seconds, both astonished and disbelieving.
The doors were guaranteed for thirty years and her block of two-storey
apartments had only been built four years ago. Shed had
hers from new and was always careful with fixtures and fittings,
keen to make them last as long as possible and benefit from the
new resale incentives, let alone the longevity bonuses, associated
with the mortgage. She sat down heavily in her Government-approved
recycled-plastic comfort-moulded garden chair and gaped at the
mess. Just then there was a scream from the first floor apartment
three doors along, followed by another even louder crash. Violet
Stitch had just opened her bathroom window, it too had flown straight
off its hinges and down into the garden below. Jane stood up again
and went to investigate the remains of her patio door. The hinges
were metal and solid enough, but the material around their insertion
into the door itself had bent away like soft toffee. She ran her
hand over the inner frame and the rest of it seemed okay. A piece
of the glass fell away and she noticed a fragment of plastic attached
to it, similar in its extruded appearance to that of the hinge
insertion. Gingerly, taking care not to cut herself, she turned
the door over. The plastic on the outer frame was as soft as putty.
She cleared up the mess and phoned maintenance. It would be at
least an hour before they could come and sort it out, but as the
shared gardens were enclosed with a perimeter security system
she decided to go for her daily jog. As she set off she could
still hear raised voices from Violets apartment.
had barely got a hundred yards down the road when she noticed
the bay windows of one of the nearby detached houses. Several
of the panels were falling out onto the perfectly cut lawn, apparently
of their own volition.
an hour later and she was toweling herself down after a refreshing
shower. Absent-mindedly she went to open her bathroom window,
but stopped herself in time. Flicking a switch by the mirrored
cabinet, she boosted the extractor fan instead. She wandered out
into the hallway and along to the kitchen, swiftly drank a pint
of cool water from the filtration unit and headed back to her
bedroom. As she passed the bathroom she noticed that the shower
curtain, with its colourful fish and dolphin pattern, had started
to develop holes. These rapidly grew in size, as though someone
was applying an invisible flame to them. She watched in horror,
as they dissolved and melted away before her eyes. Suddenly a
jet of water shot out sideways from the junction of the inlet
pipe and the toilet cistern, spraying her with cold water, and
she jumped back into the doorway. As another jet spurted up towards
the ceiling she noticed a bulge in the plaster where it struck.
The ceiling gave way and the contents of upstairs bathtub
deposited itself in front of her. Thankfully, Brian, who lived
upstairs, had been running the bath, but hadnt actually
got in it yet. His face appeared through the hole, between the
hell, how did that happen?
you forgot to turn the taps off, she said, giving him a
withering look and wrapping her towel tightly around herself.
definitely not. It was barely half full and Id already turned
them off. I was on the phone when I heard the crash. Turned 'em
off when I heard the phone ring. Blimey! Are you okay? Were you
in there? He surveyed the mess, worriedly.
Id just got out because of that, Jane pointed at the
growing sprays of water next to the cistern.
Thatd started before the ceiling went?
and my shower curtains just melted, she said, pointing
to an unrecognisable smattering of gunk in her bath, partially
obscured by plaster from the ceiling.
Brian repeated, slowly.
clean vanished away right in front of me. Never seen anything
actually, thats not all.
do you mean?
of my patio doors fell off. The plastic had gone all cheesy around
Violet lost her bathroom window, told me about it just as I was
getting home from my shift.
I heard her scream when it went. This has all got be connected.
Surely its just a coincidence?
something weird is going on, I know that much. I saw some other
windows dropping out of one of those posh houses opposite.
She covered herself up self-consciously. Right, well if
youve finished staring Im going to get dressed and
then I think wed better warn everyone in the block to be
right, sorry, Brian replied, blushing. Um, Ill
go and put some clothes on too and come down to give you a hand
it for a minute Brian. I mean, yeah, thanks and all that, Id
appreciate some help, but maybe just whiz round and let everyone
on your floor know whats happened and to be on their guard,
Ill do that and then Ill be down. Brian had
a thing for Jane, but sadly for him it wasnt reciprocated.
see you in a bit. Jane ran into the bedroom, quickly flung
on a pair of jogging bottoms, tee-shirt and trainers, grabbed
her keys and headed off to ring all the doorbells on her floor.
other occupants of the block all had similarly strange experiences
to report. Some had leaks from their washing machines, others
had melting washing-up bowls and dissolving plastic-handled cutlery.
Once they started looking, everyone had some form of water egress
into their apartment.
did you get on? Brian asked, as he trotted down the steps
to join Jane.
story, how about you?
likewise. Look, I reckon we should knock the water supply off
until maintenance can get here. What do you think?
idea, do you know where our mains supply comes in?
yeah, I think theres a stopcock under a metal flap out on
turned off the water supply, they went about clearing up and waited
for the maintenance crew to arrive. It was past Janes bedtime,
but she didnt have a great deal of choice in the matter
and stoically set about making some coffee.
* * *
days later and the town of Straddlefitch was seething with television
crews and journalists, as more and more incidents occurred. At
4am Petes mobile phone rang. It was Jane and she was in
a right old state.
please, can you come over to work? I know its horribly early,
but Bruce didnt show up and something weird is going on
here. I could really do with some help
sorry. He could
hear the alarm in her voice.
be right over, Jane. Hang in there, love. He was delighted
that shed called him. The whole knight in shining armour
thing could really help to cement the relationship hed been
hankering after. On the other hand, what was wrong? He knew some
of what was going on, but she sounded really upset.
peddled back to Straddlefitch as fast as he could, hiding his
bike in some bushes on the edge of town in case the growing civil
unrest extended to theft. He ran into the hypermarket and was
met by a scene of total chaos. Every aisle was running with the
contents of burst packaging and the smell was extraordinary, as
the frothing domestic chemistry set oozed its way across the floor.
Pete gagged on the overpowering stench of cleaning products, blended
with the sickly saccharine aromas of fizzy drinks. He steeled
himself and plunged into the pandemonium. Night staff had been
struggling with mops, buckets and brooms, but the buckets were
collapsing and curses were giving way to screams as the plastic
soles of their uniform shoes split and fell apart. Viscous, slippery,
unimaginable mixtures squished between their toes, causing them
to slip and slide as they ran for the exit. In the midst of the
turmoil stood Jane, despair and confusion etched onto her face.
God, Pete, thank goodness, she cried out. It was like
this when I got here, total bedlam.
he reached her, Pete instinctively threw his arms around her and
held her close. Hey, hey, its okay Jane, its
okay, he soothed.
it is! she shouted, pushing him away. Look at this
place, its a total bloody mess. What the hell is happening
to this town? Have we been cursed or something? She was
beside herself, forcing back the tears as anger, frustration and
helplessness threatened to overwhelm her.
it is, we cant do anything about it right now. Lets
just get off the shop floor, literally, and think about it. Yeah?
Pete held his hand out to her.
okay, sorry, just
its on my watch, you know?
she said, with exasperation.
know, Id feel the same if it was me, but it was already
under way, you couldnt have done anything. Come on.
He took her hand, pulled her towards the doors to the stairs and
noticed the look of terror on her face.
my God, its getting through my shoes! she cried out.
on. Pete grabbed a pile of discarded metal shopping baskets,
flipped them over and threw then down on the floor, forming a
row of stepping-stones. Follow me. Between them they
passed the baskets from behind Pete to in front of Jane, whilst
gradually balancing on them and painstakingly proceeded towards
the stairs. Theyd almost made it when one of the shelving
units in the next aisle collapsed and cannoned into the one next
to them, making it lurch threateningly.
for it, Pete shouted, and they threw themselves through
the door and to the safety of the stairs. Pete helped her to tug
off her decomposing shoes, before turning to his own fabric trainers,
which seemed oddly unaffected, but he took them off anyway.
in the office Pete found some alcohol wipes in the emergency medical
cabinet and turned to find that Jane had already discarded her
spattered trousers. Overcoming his natural reserve he knelt down
in front of her and tenderly cleaned the revolting concoction
from her feet. She giggled at the tickling sensation.
Pete, youre a nice guy, she said, in between squirming
a pleasure, he replied, honestly, as his gaze lingered on
got a spare pair in my locker, she said, quietly.
Pete was still distracted.
umm, yeah, of course, hang on a minute.
fine, Ill go, she said. She stood up and padded over
to her locker, punched in the combination, pulled out a pair of
jeans and slipped into them. So, what do you reckon then?
nice, suit you, he replied.
she laughed again, downstairs, silly.
right, he said, grinning sheepishly. Looks like everything
and anything with plastic packaging has split open or collapsed.
What have the cleaners been using during the dead zone?
The dead zone was the time between 4am and 6am when hardly any
shoppers came in.
bio-friendly organic products.
with water, at all? Pete inquired.
not as far as I know. Those new cleaning products are meant to
be used straight from the bottle. Why do you ask?
the weird stuff Ive been hearing about seems to be connected
to the water supply. Has anything else odd happened over the last
as such, she replied, frowning.
No fire drills? Maybe the sprinklers kicked in by accident? Happened
to me a few months back.
we had a test fire drill last month and the sprinklers are on
a new failsafe circuit.
right, okay. So, describe the previous two nights.
you know, pretty routine. Last night tailed off by 3am, so we
ran a stock check. Otherwise, err, no, nothing out of the ordinary.
that a manual check? You know, a full clip board effort, rather
than computerized bar code to warehouse stuff?
yeah. Everyone was given an aisle to cover.
hot was it?
was pretty hot at my place last night. Was it the same here?
yeah, I guess. The air con was down, so apart from those who got
the freezers to check
yeah, it was baking.
you get sweaty?
beg your pardon? Jane didnt like the direction the
conversation was taking.
you get sweaty, he repeated, perspire.
know what you mean, just a rather personal question is all. Since
you ask, yeah, it was a clammy night.
people were moving the stock around, touching it, making a visual
yeah. How else are you gonna do it?
he said quietly.
be what? Jane picked up on the agitation in his voice.
only contact with the stock was from the staff, from being handled.
Nothing else could have caused it. If it was just a few things,
oh I dunno
just stuff containing water, but it wasnt,
was it? All the plastic containers fell apart.
are you getting at? she asked uncomfortably.
something in the water supply.
she said slowly.
drink water! Pete swallowed nervously.
were both quiet for a moment, then Jane said, What? You
think were infected with something?
be. Can you think of any other reason for all this?
before we jump to any kind of whacked-out conclusions, maybe we
should just call Head Office and let them figure it out?
she said, sharply.
of course, youre right.
* * *
Hypermarket had remained closed the following day and scientists
from across the country were running tests. Jane had gone back
home, but with no running water, a partially demolished bathroom
and the continued disintegration of her apartment, shed
packed a bag and taken Pete up on his offer of staying at his
place. They sat together listening to the news on the old radio
set, which Pete had upgraded to receive digital broadcasts.
extended newscast this evening charts the deepening mystery surrounding
the strange events occurring in the little Dorset town of Straddlefitch,
said Digicoms Ken Bagfurl. As has already been reported,
over the past few days the infrastructure of Straddlefitch appears
to be falling apart. Plastic windows, doors and plumbing were
the first to be affected, but this swiftly spread to the local
Shopeezy Hypermarket with the resultant collapse of all of the
stores plastic packaging. Today we have been getting reports
of car components such as steering wheels, dashboards and door
handles softening and becoming dangerously unsafe. Drivers talk
of them Turning into plasticine in their hands. The
Department of Health, along with the Head of the Commission for
Public Safety, has declared Straddlefitch a no-go area and placed
it under strict quarantine conditions, along with a ten-mile exclusion
zone perimeter. Extra police have been called in to assist the
Dorset Constabulary, as there have already been reports of criminals
trying to break through the cordon and avail themselves of the
consequent decrease in domestic security. We go over now to Ted
Wilkinson, our man on the ground in Straddlefitch. Can you hear
photograph of Digicoms roving reporter appeared, accompanied
by the sound of a male voice via a telephone. Hello, Ken,
yes I can hear you okay. Im stood here in a thick biohazard
suit, with full helmet, gloves and breathing apparatus. Its
less than comfortable, but in the circumstances these are the
minimum advisory precautions.
see, so can you describe the situation there?
as you can imagine theres a mixture of bewilderment and
frustration amongst the locals
a major understatement, Pete shouted at the radio.
what started as an inconvenience has progressed to a major incident
and a serious concern to the Government, Ted continued.
see, Ken replied, so what are the theories to date?
Ken, thats a difficult one. None of the experts are committing
themselves, but as far as I can tell it sounds like something
has got into the towns water supply. So far it doesnt
seem to pose a direct threat to the people themselves, but it
does appear to be targeting anything made of plastic.
antique plastic or Government-approved recycled, Ted?
predominantly been the recycled, Ken, but it has no respect for
there any suspicion of foul-play, maybe even some form of terrorist
at this stage.
is there any indication of how long the situation might last?
at present, but Ill keep you informed. Meanwhile, food parcels
are being dropped into the affected zone and tankers fitted with
super-secure one-way safety valves are pumping fresh water along
a series of metal pipes. The lorries are positioned just outside
the perimeter, so the hope is that an uncontaminated supply can
be delivered to the populace.
well thanks for that report Ted and be sure to let us know as
soon as you hear anything else that might throw some more light
on the situation.
do, Ken, bye for now, Ted Wilkinson said as he signed off
and began the journey back to the perimeter to get out of the
clinging biohazard suit and undergo decontamination procedures.
thats the state of affairs in Straddlefitch and, as promised,
well bring you any further news just as soon as we receive
it. Now onto the other main events of the day
switched the radio off. Theyre not telling us everything,
but then theyre probably concerned about panicking people
and worrying them even more than they are already.
doubt. Still, at least one good things come out of it,
Pete said positively.
leant forward to kiss her on the nose and she laughed. Over the
coming weeks he taught Jane how to hand-wash her clothes, how
to run them through a mangle and peg them out in the warm summer
air to dry. He showed her how to milk the goats and make cheese,
collect honey, make beeswax candles, plant and grow vegetables
and cook meals with mouth-wateringly fresh ingredients. Theyd
fill the huge old iron bath and share it, after which Pete would
teach her how to play guitar, or theyd sit and read one
of the many real books from his grandparents collection.
* * *
took two weeks for the scientists to trace the source of the water
contamination back to a nearby underground stream. With the aid
of a military fibre optic crawler they traced the stream back
to the ancient rubbish tip. They isolated the source and redirected
the streams course, such that it bypassed the Household
Waste Amenity Point altogether, but by then it was too late. It
only took a few people to spread it beyond the Straddlefitch exclusion
zone. The microbes had adapted again, such that they were equally
at home in water, in the human bloodstream, bladder, urinary tract
and skin. Although totally harmless to human metabolism, they
were impervious to both the immune system and to every antibiotic
that was thrown at them. Plastiphagus Mutans, as it was
christened, was in Europe within a month and global by the end
of the year, such was its reproductive powers and the itinerant
nature of its host. It became known as The Anti-Midas Touch
and even attempts at halting its spread by supplying everyone
with latex glovesand then nitrilefailed, as it soon
developed a taste for them as well. It digested its way through
plastic-coated conduits, gas pipes and plumbing. At first the
manufacturing industry could keep up with the pace, as there were
still immense stocks of plastic awaiting the Government-approved
recycling process, but in time Plastiphagus Mutans ruled
housings, motherboards and keyboards gave way, the loss of computing
power caused untold damage to global stock markets, communication
and commerce. No one had realized how dependant the human race
had become on the technologies that supported the delicate infrastructure.
The silicone chip had been king, but it was plastic that had held
it all together. Transport faltered and failed, power sources
struggled and died, satellitesalthough out of the reach
of P. Mutanswere rendered deaf and dumb. The clock
was turned back almost 200 years, in merely five. The pampered
western population of the planet had to look to what remained
of the Third World for guidance, as cities perished and towns
ground to a halt, with villages and local communities becoming
was the master of invention, but nature would reign supreme, as
sure as seeds find root twixt the cracks in the concrete.